Magazine article The New Yorker

Bubba Buffa

Magazine article The New Yorker

Bubba Buffa

Article excerpt

Opera composers seldom meet their title characters, but that's what happened to Bonnie Montgomery one afternoon in 2009, in the lobby of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Montgomery is the composer of "Billy Blythe," a folk opera about the adolescence of Bill Clinton, as he documented it in his 2004 memoir, "My Life." (Clinton was Billy Blythe until he took the name of his stepfather, Roger Clinton, at the age of sixteen.) "I told him about it really quickly," Montgomery said the other day. "He said something along the lines of 'Best of luck with that,' and moved on."

Montgomery, dressed in a blue gingham dress and wearing cowboy boots, had just arrived in Manhattan after a twenty-hour drive from Little Rock, to supervise the final preparations for the opera's debut, at the Medicine Show Theatre, on Fifty-second Street. Zachary James, the director, had reserved space in a rent-by-the-hour rehearsal studio in the theatre district, so that Montgomery could get acquainted with Jessica Bowers, a mezzo-soprano, who would be singing the role of Clinton's mother, Virginia, and Alex Krasser, a swarthy twenty-four-year-old, who would be the show's Billy.

The group began to quiz Montgomery, who is thirty-one, on her creative intentions. She grabbed a handful of her brown hair and knotted it at her neck and tapped the toe of one of her boots. She cited a passage from "My Life," about young Bill and Virginia. "When I could get up early enough," Clinton writes, "I loved sitting on the floor of the bathroom and watching her put makeup on that beautiful face." The ritual, Clinton adds, "took a while, partly because she had no eyebrows."

"That was the first inspiration for writing an opera," Montgomery said. "I could just see him lying there with a sax, looking up at her, singing a really melodious aria and putting on her makeup."

Bowers, a striking woman with creamy skin and velvety black hair, asked for notes on the number, "Virginia's Aria / The Makeup Song." "It's interesting, because the music is really, really sexy," she said. "But, then, it's a conversation with my son. The song could be a slinking-across-the-piano, cabaret kind of thing. I'm just trying to figure out how not to be sexy around my son."

Montgomery fished in her decolletage and produced a tube of coral lipstick, which she applied to her mouth. "People have said that's like an Oedipal scene," she said. "There's a book on the psychology of Bill Clinton, and how the women he's attracted to remind him of his mother. …

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